Inspired by limestone caves
In the summer of 1953, Georgette Heyer visited the famous limestone caves of Derbyshire. She was on holiday, possibly heading north to Greywalls in Scotland, and was intrigued by the magnificent caves of the Peak District in Derbyshire. The most famous of these is the Peak Cavern, also known, since the sixteenth century, as the “Devil’s Arse”. Today, only two main caverns are open to the public, but in Heyer’s day, she was able to visit the “Devil’s Staircase”, “Halfway House”, to see the river known as the “inner Styx” and to cross the wooden bridges known as the “Five Arches”. It was her visit to the Peak Cavern that gave her the idea for a book set in Derbyshire. What follows is the complete letter that Georgette Heyer wrote to her publisher just a couple of months after returning from holiday. It is rare for Heyer readers to gain a detailed insight into how she actually wrote her novels; how much plotting she did and how well she knew her characters before putting pen to paper. Heyer was notoriously private. She resisted talking about her books and her son once told me that she couldn’t have told you how she wrote (and she would have hated the question too!) only that it came naturally and that once she had begun it usually happened quickly.
A letter and an outline
In October 1953, Georgette Heyer penned a letter to Louisa Callender at Heinemann. Miss Callender had written to ask if Georgette could give her an outline of her next book so that Louisa might tell Miss Sutherland, the editor of Woman’s Journal to expect a new Heyer for serialisation in her magazine. One of the fascinating things about Georgette’s letter is seeing the ways in which her original plot both holds to and deviates from the final book.
Are you trying to be funny? Tell you about my new book indeed! How can I, when I haven’t yet worked it out for my own information? The title will be The Toll-Gate. That, at least, is certain. It is Regency – just after Waterloo. The hero is a huge young man who has sold out of some dreary cavalry regiment or other because he doesn’t fancy the army in peace-time. His name is John, and I’m not entirely sure of his surname, but think it may be Rivington. He is either a Major or a Captain, and he has a reputation for doing crazy things, and liking Adventure. He is fair, and (of course) handsome, and not very Heyer-hero, because definitely nice. I can’t tell you his regiment because I haven’t yet looked up the Peninsular cavalry. I rather think the Household Troops didn’t come on the scene in Spain until too late for my hero, so he was probably in the dragoons.
“a general air of Fear and Mystery”
Well, this character, riding alone at dusk – probably on his way to stay with a friend – comes to a toll-gate and can’t get the gate-keeper to show himself. Finds this person in extremis, distressed wife in attendance, and takes over his duties for the rest of the night. [now, whether he did this out of kindness, or because the gate-keeper had been Done to Death – which I think happened – and there’s a general air of Fear and Mystery, which naturally intrigues our gallant Captain – or Major – I can’t tell you; but I incline to think the latter was the way it was.] Next morning, bright and early, he has to go out (unshaved) to open the gate to none other than Our Heroine, Nell Stornaway. This damsel is an outsize, which made her very unsuccessful during her one and only Season in London; she lives with semi-paralysed grandfather in adjacent and mouldering mansion, and runs things, which makes her a bit masterful. Grandpa has played ducks and drakes with his fortune, the estate is entailed, and he’s a baronet. Heir is Horrid Cousin, Henry Stornaway, who, for reasons which appear inexplicable, has elected to park himself in the Mouldering Mansion, with a Gross Crony, Nathaniel Coate, who is enamoured of Nell.
“Struck all of a heap”
Well! – Our Hero is struck all of a heap by Nell, and instantly decides to go on Keeping the gate. And all sorts of things happen – though exactly what I don’t know. I rather think Henry Stornaway is carrying on some highly improper and illegal business, but what it was I’m damned if I can discover. I rather want to bring in a Bow Street Runner (Gabriel Stogumber); but if the business was smuggling in a big way, I think it would have to be an Excise Officer, which isn’t so good. Obviously the gatekeeper was working for him, and fell out with him. Furthermore, Our Hero, little though he knows it, has succeeded to his cousin’s Earldom, said cousin having had an accident – either out cubbing, or fell down a flight of stairs. Practically on the eve of his marriage. Another cousin, [~~~~ for the life of me I cannot decipher this word! If you can help, please see the photo below.], having discovered where Our Hero is lurking, tries to do him in. And, Grandpa, feeling his End at Hand, and having nothing to leave Nell, and being afraid of what may happen to her at the hands of Henry and Nat Coate, asks Our Hero if he’s willing to marry her, which, of course, he is, and that provides this fertile author with heavenly wedding-scene by candlelight and special licence, at Grandpa’s bedside. Naturally, Our Hero has divulged his identity, so this isn’t as cock-eyed as it sounds. I think Evil Cousin has to be exposed, and no doubt there are all sorts of adventures during the course of this entrancing narrative. There is (of course) a nice dandy, called Wilfred Babbacombe, who is a friend of Our Hero’s, and gets pressed into the service to mind the gate while O.H. was waltzing off on affairs of his own. [This provides Our Author with material for Comic Scene, Wilfred, all pansied up, trying to exact toll from cowherd driving cattle to be milked. Such were exempt from toll-duties.]
“It’ll make a splendid serial”
Can you do anything with that? For God’s sake, don’t commit me to anything except mammoth hero and heroine and the toll-gate! It may sound a bit nebulous to you, and I admit that there are lots of loose-ends, but it’ll work out in the end. And warn the S.B. that it’s on the way, so that she can keep space. Once I’ve settled the plot it won’t take me more than two months to write, It’ll make a splendid serial, so don’t let’s listen to any backchat from that afflictive woman. If we tell her now that I’m doing it, she’ll have no excuse for putting off serialisation for months and months.
Ever, GeorgetteGeorgette Heyer to Louisa Callender, letter, 7 October 1953.
“I’ve got it pretty well taped now”
I think I’ve got it pretty well taped now, thanks in some measure to my Life’s Partner who suddenly uttered the cryptic word [“specie!”] I never did much like the idea of smuggling, and I began to think the Bad Man might have got away with bullion, which they hid in a limestone cave in Derbyshire. (I am determined to use these caves, which I saw two months ago!) Ronald didn’t go very big for the bullion notion, foreseeing snags. But having a pachydermaton’s memory he recalled, out of the blue, that I once read him a long spiel about coinage after Waterloo, when. For the first time in years, we issued new gold and silver coins, and – which is important – minted the first sovereigns and half-sovereigns, calling in the guineas. So what could be better? Specie was being sent north – to Scotland, unless I find the Scots minted their own – and the wagon-load was snatched. But since the new money was of course “hot”, it had to be kept until a lot was in circulation. What better place than an unknown cave? What’s more, we won’t have the gate-keeper in extremis: we won’t find him at all. Not until later, when Our Hero finds his body in the cave. [The cave I went through was like a refrigerator, and I thought at the time it would come in handy for a corpse!] So there we are – but of course all this stuff isn’t immediately disclosed. You can just say it’s an adventurous romance.
“This is just what the doctor ordered for the fans.”
Oh, the hero is Captain John Staple, late of the 3rd Dragoon Guards. I’ve got a cast of upwards of 30 persons, but the main protagonists are Staple, Nell Stornaway, Jeremy Chirk, highwayman, Gabriel Stogumber, Bow Street Runner, masquerading as bagman, and Rose Durfield, maid to Nell, and being courted by my heavenly highwayman. Unless I miss my bet, he’s going to steal the book. I hope that gives your travellers enough to go on. If you’re going to write a preliminary puff, do leave it vague! I’ve decided I can’t open with the arrival at the deserted toll-gate. I shall have to plump into the middle of a Staple family gathering – party in honour of Earl of Saltash’s engagement to a dim type. If I don’t do this, and bring on Lucius Staple, the Captain’s jovial but wicked cousin, I shall make it difficult for myself later on. Really, the more I consider the matter, the more convinced I become that the S.B. can think herself lucky. This is just what the doctor ordered for the fans.
Ever GeorgetteGeorgette Heyer to Louisa Callender, letter, 12 October 1953.